By Greg Schreur
Some of the names we’re thinking of giving you, we know right now, are all wrong. Take, for instance, the name Brian, which happens to be the name of the man your mother was originally engaged to until he gave her a black eye. There is no way you could be named Brian, even if it was, as Brian claimed, a terrible accident. Or Thomas, the name of your paternal grandfather, who is the reason your father will have to bite his lip when he helps you struggle through your math homework or watches you flinch away from ground balls while you play second base. Or for that matter, even Rob, a classmate of your father’s in sixth grade who will forever be remembered for eating his own earwax.
These are only some of the names that must be discarded for reasons of negative association. Creepy neighbors and obnoxious co-workers must also be eliminated, along with names like Benedict and Osama. Other names may not suit your surname because the resultant alliteration or rhyming would make you sound like a character in a children’s book, or the combination of the names would create an unfortunate homonym (Mike Rotch is not the sort of thing we want on people’s minds when talking to you). Still other names may seem promising, but even your mother’s father, who is a wonderful man and an ideal person to be the namesake of, would never consent to your being named Marinus.
Indeed, we find it easier to brainstorm a list of names not to give you. We diffuse the tension by suggesting names like Roscoe, Hyman, Dooley, or Yakov. Yet after all these rejects, there are a plethora of candidates that are not readily dismissed. When one of us suggests, say, Paul, we’re both silent for some time as we go through the battery of tests: It is biblical without being sanctimonious; neither of us ever had nor knows anyone with a pet named Paul; in fact the only Paul either of us knows is a man from your father’s office who is a decent person with whom your father has little enough contact to keep it from being awkward. So we repeat the name, using different tones for calling you in for dinner, congratulating you for some random accomplishment, scolding your disobedience, or screaming at you to get out of the way of an oncoming car in a hypothetical future that is itself pregnant with expectancy and nauseating pressures.
With some names we can’t foresee the troubles. But we can imagine. Perhaps your name will be given to another child who grows up to be a mass-murdering cannibal, or your name will be given to a Category 5 hurricane that wipes out an entire city, and although you have never knowingly eaten human flesh or breached any levees, people will metaphorically associate you—your neediness, your intrusiveness—with these things.
Perhaps unseen linguistic forces will cause your name to become a pejorative. At one point, for example, Dick must have been a harmless and honorable name, but then, well, you know, it became something else, and when kids at school start calling you Dick, of course you’ll be smart enough to know that they aren’t calling your name, nor do they think you are actually a penis, so you’ll decide it must be an expression of their feelings about you, and your self-esteem understandably will suffer. You’ll be too embarrassed to go to someone like a teacher. Besides, what would you say, they’re calling me Dick? It’s your name, they would reply, and you would be left alone to make sense of humankind’s depravity, well before you are ready.
Instead of seeking adult help, when a group of boys—one of them perhaps named Peter, another one maybe Rod—when they offer a sense of belonging, you’ll go along. You won’t ask why when they offer you something to smoke. You’ll just smoke. You won’t like it, but you will like being with people who understand you, so you’ll keep smoking until you do like it. This could lead anywhere, but let’s just say that it leads to something more, like partying instead of studying and hiding a bottle of cheap vodka in your bedroom and avoiding your parents when they ask where you’ve been and then a first fateful dabbling with marijuana in the back of Peter’s van.
We aren’t going to name you Dick. We’re just making a point here.
The safe route would be to give you a very common name so there will be several of you in the same class. You will likely be of marginal popularity, both statistically speaking and what with having such a regular name. Of course someone with your name will be the guy whose name all the girls write on their notebooks, but this will only remind you of your own anonymity and cause you to lose touch with reality as you try to live vicariously through him.
Then one of those girls, whom you’ve certainly fantasized about, will call you by your name but will mistakenly use the last name of a guy who’s a total nerd, and you’ll harbor such resentment against her that you will be unable to establish a healthy relationship with a woman until you are well into your thirties, but by then your body is sagging and you’re measuring your life out in coffee spoons like J. Alfred Prufrock (himself nominally challenged). On the positive side, because you will never be with a woman, you will never have to go through the agony of naming your own child, but when the time comes that you’re sitting alone watching Jeopardy while your neighbor is outside playing catch with his son, this does not offer much consolation.
The obvious alternative is to give you a wildly original or unique name or at least a new take on a familiar name, something like Joscua. At first it will be novelty. People will comment favorably about its uniqueness, and this will become a part of your personality. You will be your own man and forge your own way in the world. You will not care what others think. But then you will grow tired of people asking how to spell your name. You might even become resentful of us and stop coming home for Thanksgiving.
We will certainly call, pleading you to see us, even if not for the holidays, but the independence we instilled in you when we named you now comes back to haunt us when you slam the phone down and stop answering. Several Thanksgivings pass, and while we are devastated, you live a successful and carefree life, marry a beautiful woman, and have a son of your own; such interdependence, however, chafes your individualist nature so you remain aloof in your other pursuits, one of which includes your secretary, who falls in love with you, or at least the idea of you, until she is downsized in a round of layoffs and is forgotten. That will not be your concern; there will be other secretaries. Meanwhile, something must be happening back at home with your wife and child, who are themselves learning how to live without you. You won’t think about this until you hear Harry Chapin singing “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Of course you think it’s Cat Stevens, but that’s not the only thing you’re wrong about: No matter how strongly you believe you can undo the sins of the past, you’re no different than the man in the song, and like him your son is too far gone by the time you start reaching out to him. You die alone with scar tissue in the places where your connections to both the past and the future once were.
We will also be careful not to name you Butch or Biff, names that would be difficult to live up to, but your father will try convincing your mother to name you after some sports figure. She will resist but eventually compromise, and in the end you become a Junior. This will make your father proud in a way that surprises him, although he tells people at the hospital that he wants you to be your own man—although seeing his name many years later on report cards filled with mostly Bs and Cs and on the back of a clean sports uniform hunched over on the bench causes him to feel slightly nuanced pangs of disappointment. After one game where you do play much of the fourth quarter, you run up to him excitedly. Although he smiles weakly, he is not looking at you, and no matter how much you strain you cannot meet his eyes.
A few days later you go into your room and find your father sitting on the edge of your bed, slouching so that his head almost rests in his lap. He leaves without saying anything, and although neither of you grasps the symbolism of the moment, you are so disturbed that for the next few nights you sleep on the floor until it becomes too uncomfortable, and sometime in the middle of the fourth night you crawl back under the covers where you warm quickly and fall asleep. Before next season you announce at supper that you’re not trying out for the team, at which your father merely grunts with a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
Oh, we struggle mightily with this responsibility. It leads to disagreements, even arguments. Paralyzed by the opacity of uncertainty, we put you out of our minds or distract ourselves from the obligation of naming you by focusing on the mundane details of your imminent arrival. That is, until someone asks us about your name and we smile coyly, hoping to evade the question; later, however, we resolutely bring out the baby name books, but the names will not have changed and the uncertainty will remain. You are born, and still we have not decided. We refer to you simply as “He” or “Baby” or “Boy.” As a result you are never baptized, never enrolled in school, never called on the phone or sent any mail. You are devoid of identity, like an undiscovered atomic element. Those who are even vaguely aware of your existence speak of you as the son of your father or in a similarly indirect manner. We will try to protect you from a world that chews up and spits out people without a name for themselves. We pad your existence with toys and treats and encourage you to stay with us where we can lovingly and guiltily provide, and you never seem to grow up. In fact you seem to get smaller each year while these things increase, filling up every part of the house, until one day you disappear altogether, never to be found, even by yourself.
I’m not making any predictions here. Despite our fixation, your name will not determine the course of your existence. After all, a rose by any other name is still a rose. Neither fate nor the Divine has conspired against you or your name in deciding your fate; you will have some control over the person you will become with whatever name you are given.
I guess I’m not saying anything except this: Despite all our efforts and good intentions in assigning you a name, this obligation is fraught with so much inherent danger and affected by so many factors outside our influence that you really cannot blame us for anything but the one thing we ultimately did have control over, which was the decision to bring you into a broken world full of overbearing fathers and abusive ex-boyfriends and earwax eaters, traitors and terrorists, name callers and potheads, serial killers and love-struck, downsized secretaries, all of whom, including your parents, are just trying to make sense of their own names.
Author’s Note: This essay came from my growing realization that it’s the bane of every thoughtful parent to worry that you’re warping your children by foisting your own personal quirks onto them. For the record, my wife had no abusive boyfriends, and it was my grandpa who was named Marinus, a wonderful man with an unfortunate name. Also for the record: I’m married to a Kristen, and my three children—Annie, Jack, and Charlie—all are appropriately named. I think.
Greg Schreur writes and teaches in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His writing has appeared in Eclectica, Cantaraville, and Rock & Sling, in addition to educational journals.
Brain, Child (Fall 2008)